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The Center for Human Rights and International Justice

an article by jessica curtis, class of 2007

A Complex Problem
“To my way of thinking, I don’t think so much in terms of the catalogue of rights, but I think of it as having three elements: security, subsistence, and voice. Boundaries have been used to argue against efforts to safeguard those rights for everybody. We have a basic responsibility to recognize that, in terms of fundamental human rights, there is no space or status in which these don’t apply.” – Professor Frank Garcia, on defining basic human rights

“I am here to talk to you today about my country, Nigeria,” said Austin Onuoha, the first of two speakers on “African Oil and Poverty.” Minutes earlier, the air around me had been peppered with accents from around the world: Nigeria. Chad. Uganda. The flat tones of a true Bostonian. Now, though, eyes were focused on the front of the room.

“As you may know, and while my colleagues from other nations in Africa, especially South Africa, would disagree—“ Mr. Onuoha paused and, looking up over the podium with a hint of mischief in his eyes, gestured slightly towards the map of Africa on the slide behind him. He straightened his shoulders imperiously while adopting a mock officious tone for better effect.

“…Nigeria?” He paused again briefly. “Is the capital of Africa.” The crowd laughed appreciatively.

“And what about Uganda?” asked one of my seatmates, laughing with the crowd. “He forgot Uganda. Uganda would certainly argue that proposition.”

It was the last stop for Mr. Onuoha and Father Antoine Berilengar, SJ, of Chad. Their two-week tour of the United States was co-sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the Jesuit Conference; the two men came to the Boston College campus at the behest of its newly established Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Both of them had spent the last two weeks visiting U.S. college campuses, speaking with humor and erudition on the issues surrounding extraction of oil in the African context—a subject of great import both to their home countries and the United States in its seemingly endless search for fuel. Videos and slides showed the disparities in living conditions between the oil company’s employees and their host community (here, Nigeria): expats, most of them in desperate need of a gym membership, lounged on beaches; native Nigerians lived in shanty towns on the other side of a twenty-foot wall. The paradox was not lost on us: to paraphrase Mr. Onuoha, there is electricity twenty-four hours a day on one side of the wall: clean running water, swimming pools, the finest in medical care. On the other side of that wall, there is unemployment, open sewage, and an early grave. Perhaps most importantly, those living outside the wall have no right to breach it.

My friend Dorothy likes to joke about the crowd that tends to gather on the Law School campus around public interest events such as these. The same core group of students tends to show for anything remotely having to do with human rights, public interest, or international law. Is Career Services offering a seminar on “How to Land a Public Interest Interview”? We're there. International Cheese and Cracker Day? Ditto. Dorothy's taken to organizing the lot of us for dinner preceding these events: one person drives, the others pile in, making us a veritable clown car of concerned citizens. And while she claims to feel that her corporate background in intellectual property makes her an impostor to these discussions, I think there is a good argument to be made for her being the most important one among us, symbolically speaking: today, when the international pages of reputable news sources routinely run out of room to print the day’s events, the world needs more interaction between public and private spheres, not less, if there is to be a comprehensive solution to increasingly complex problems. We pile into the car time and again because the talks we attend present us with a veritable minefield of opinions regarding these situations as public policy does battle with public opinion, often rife with accusations of international neglect and domestic misappropriation of resources. Who is right? To quote Mr. Onuoha, “Right now, we are hearing discordant notes to the extent that nobody is listening to each other.”

This business of “talking at one another” gets to the heart of why Dorothy belongs at human rights events. It gets to the heart of why the new Center for Human Rights and International Justice is, in the words of professor Frank Garcia, “a welcome addition to the law school” and an undertaking which both current students and Law School alumni should actively, vigorously, and aggressively support.

A Comprehensive Solution
“The most pressing need in international politics today is to take that basic package [of human rights] out of state-based politics, to figure out a way to deliver on our responsibility to see that everybody has that basic package.” – Professor Frank Garcia

Boston College’s newly-created Center for Human Rights and International Justice stands on the fundamental premise that the only real solution to such formidable questions of conscience and practicality is an interdisciplinary one that deliberately engages questions of ethics rather than evades them. To this end, the Center hopes to position students and practitioners to do the following: to influence state policy decisions based on theories of integrated justice culled from practical, on-the-ground research and advocacy alongside affected community participants and to promote individual healing and community wholeness to the greatest extent possible. In addition to interdisciplinary graduate seminars designed to foster conversation, the Center will engage in three initial projects that will document, aid, and ensure protections for human beings in the following countries: Guatemala, East Africa, and—this one may seem familiar—the United States. This past week’s event, “African Oil and Poverty,” was indicative of the kinds of issues and interaction the Center hopes to foster. True, the Center’s work in East Africa will research issues particular to refugees and forced migration in that arena; but as Thursday’s talk aptly demonstrated, there is increasing overlap between international justice and American daily life. In the current international context, “reconciliation” starts to be about more than race or colonization; getting to what should be from what is implicates almost every aspect of American society.

At the end of the presentation, the crowd surged forward to speak with Center representatives, the speakers, and representatives from Catholic Relief Services about what can be done here, now, by undergraduate and graduate students. This is exactly the kind of dialogue and focused, action-inducing outrage that the Center hopes to encourage. Under the guidance of Professor David Hollenbach, S.J., from BC’s Department of Theology, the Center will continue to coordinate its efforts with Catholic Relief Services, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Institute for Peace and International Relations at Hekima College of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. The Center’s work in Guatemala will largely revolve around the use of exhumations to bring restoration to local communities in the wake of decades of bitter civil war. Led by the Lynch School of Education Professor M. Brinton Lykes, the Center hopes to create a model that will be easily replicated by other schools and institutions. Using community leaders to identify problems, students across disciplines will learn how to effectively make recommendations to governments, to integrate local strategies of peacekeeping and problem-solving, and to create a lasting model for civil society and the rule of law that will be potentially applicable in other post-conflict situations around the globe.

A Cooperative Response
The third of these programs is, perhaps, the one most intimately tied to the Law School. It also demonstrates more clearly how the Center envisions international justice squaring with domestic policy. Led by our own Professor Daniel Kanstroom, the Ruby Slippers Project will build off the framework of BC’s Immigration and Asylum Project, where current BC Law students already represent clients facing deportation form the United States. This is no small undertaking: between 1991 and 2002, the United States welcomed 11 million lawful permanent residents into its borders. During that same time period, it also ordered another 23 million people deported via formal removal proceedings or as part of an immigration plea known, ironically, as “voluntary departure.” (There is not much that is “voluntary” about it.) The sheer volume of persons flowing in and being forced out of our borders is, in itself, a matter of national concern. The Ruby Slippers Project concerns itself with this population’s fate in the wake of a series of legislative events that severely abrogated the rights of non-citizens, including those residing here legally.

In 1996, Congress passed two pieces of legislature affecting this population: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). In the wake of September 11, 2001, Congress accelerated the enforcement of the zero-tolerance policies these two Acts put into play. Under the Acts, judicial review for certain types of deportation orders has been completely eliminated, leaving final decisions about removal from the United States in the hands of administrative officials appointed by and operating as a part of the executive branch. Furthermore, both Acts substantially changed the available grounds for exclusion and deportation so that some laws guiding deportation now operate retroactively, particularly with regard to previous criminal offenses. These Acts created new removal procedures wherein prosecutors are allowed to use “secret evidence” against non-citizens accused of “terrorist” activity. In the wake of deportation, families are destroyed, judicial review further restricted, and non-citizens left more vulnerable to discrimination in their immigration proceedings and right to liberty—all in the name of national security.

Professor Kanstroom is not shy about the Project’s intention to change the current law. In keeping with the interdisciplinary format of the Center’s Guatemalan and East African ventures, the Ruby Slippers Project will evaluate current U.S. policy for the adequacy of its answers to the questions posed by concerned citizens, among others: what are the psychosocial, spiritual, emotional and educational needs of these populations, and are they being addressed? how can socioeconomic policy be developed to provide support to their families during legal procedures and return to the U.S.? With its findings, the Project hopes to make recommendations that will allow attorneys and lawmakers in the United States government to systematically approach these cases from a position of mercy, keeping focus on the broader impact of deportation policy on families both home and abroad, and supplying an initial comprehensive premise upon which policy-makers can rely to adequately mitigate and anticipate the hidden externalities of human migration in the U.S. system.

The Center’s undertaking is ambitious and its needs understandably diverse. The most pressing of those needs is, perhaps, students. According to Professor Kanstroom, “Law students not only fill this gap [between the population’s needs and the advocates available], but as they acquire valuable experience and training in this field of law, they form the core of a future cadre of dedicated professionals.” My argument is that more than law students are needed, and certainly more law students than can currently fit into Dorothy’s clown car. We need individuals with a wider range of expertise across a variety of sectors. Be it by supporting a summer internship, funding a particular Center project, or finding out how their particular field of law comes to bear on international politics, alumni can and should play a vital role in the Center’s new presence on campus. My reasoning is this: these issues are complicated--NATO troops in Sudan, African oil, U.S. deportation law, post-conflict exhumations— and they require a combination of expertise and idealism, of humility and knowledge. Far be it from this writer to argue with the immortal words of the King; but while “a little less conversation, a little more action, please,” has sometimes been an apt critique of would-be social activists, the changing nature of our society in the furious onslaught of globalization still requires a little more conversation—at least conversation of a different kind. Environmentalists need to talk to health specialists; multinational corporations need to talk to human rights groups about the records of the countries in which they wish to do business; oil companies need to talk to governments about transparency issues. The Center for Human Rights and International Justice on Boston College’s main campus is a welcome addition to the law school community, one that alumni can and should vigorously support, as a space where ethical considerations and concerns are figured into, rather than factored out of, deciding how to act in the world at large.

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J. Donald Monan, S.J.
Our second feature from this issue of eBrief: streaming video of Father Monan's recent visit to BC Law. More...